Since the final release of Ultima IX: Ascension in December 1999, there has been much speculation as to what happened to the plot in the five years since the release of Ultima VIII. Origin Systems had released a number of preview clips in those years, first in the Ultima Collection CD and then intermittently in between. These clips pointed to a totally different plotline from what we actually wound up getting in the final cut of Ultima IX, one which many fans of the series agreed was unsatisfying and unrewarding.
The definitive answer came on December 9, 1999, when someone posted to the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.rpg a synopsis of the original script given by Bob White who had been on the Ultima IX team, working with Richard Garriott (a.k.a Lord British), John Watson, and Brian Martin on the plotline for the game.
Original source was Message-Id: D7Q34.93431$7I4.email@example.com, posted to comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.rpg on Thu, 09 Dec 1999 09:44:35 CST by "Hetz" <firstname.lastname@example.org>. This is not the original text; I've taken the liberty of restating the story in my own words for the most part, because I have no idea who to contact for permission to use the actual text.
* * * SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT PLAYED ULTIMA IX * * *
The beginning of the game is more or less the same as the beginning of the actual Ultima IX release, except that the Avatar never actually returns to Earth after his sojourn in Pagan in Ultima VIII. He arrives in Britannia on a mountain overlooking the Guardian's keep in Terfin. Before he can overcome disorientation, a Wyrmguard takes a dragon up and incinerates him.
Then there is the dark throne room scene with the Guardian in shadow talking to Lord Blackthorn. Blackthorn is pleased after apparently seeing the Avatar's death but the Guardian realizes that he was teleported away just in the nick of time by someone, who must be at the castle of Stonegate. Blackthorn wants to go after him but the Guardian instructs him to wait because he wants the Avatar to see how he has been destroying Britannia and wants the Avatar to despair.
So far, the storyline is the same as the official Ultima IX. The game begins with the Avatar in bed in Stonegate with Hawkwind the Seer from Ultima IV nursing him. To ensure that the Avatar is fine, Hawkwind asks the Virtue Questions that were first introduced in Ultima IV, creating the Avatar character for the game. He then tells the Avatar about what has happened since he left 80 years ago (time in Pagan ran so much slower). Giant columns appear throughout the land, which affect the climate, drying up some areas, and flooding others, as well as causing devastating seismic and volcanic phenomena all over Britannia. These changes have caused widespread famine in many parts of the world, further compounded by a plague spreading around. The people of Moonglow were able to produce limited quantities of food using magic, some of which they export throughout the land. The monks of Britain found that the venom of the Silver Serpent, if properly distilled into Serpentwyne, would provide relief from the plague, but not cure it. Something happened (as the Avatar later finds out) that caused Britain to stop exporting Serpentwyne to Moonglow and Moonglow began stopping the exportation of food to Britain. The army divided and civil war is at hand. Hawkwind tells the Avatar to descend into the tunnels under Stonegate and travel to Britain that way to see Lord British. Hawkwind disappears saying he needs to rest because the summoning drained him so much. The area in and around Stonegate, isolated from the rest of the world by high peaks and the ocean, provides the training/tutorial ground for the new interface.
Along the way to Britain, the Avatar is knocked unconscious by a teleporter that he must pass through. The Guardian appears in a vision, taunting the Avatar, saying he is glad that he will be able to watch while he shows Lord British what the Avatar was up to in Pagan. Lord British has a waking dream and sees the Avatar summoning the elemental Titan Pyros. This movie sequence was used in the official Ultima IX in a very different context, with a really strange justification.
The Avatar eventually arrives in Britain, and is confronted by Lord British about the dream. He accepts the Avatar's explanation that he had to do what was necessary, but is nevertheless disturbed. Then he tells the Avatar that Britannia is at the brink of civil war. A few years ago, Lord British's health began to decline and so he appointed a tribunal consisting of the leader of the Moonglow mages, Verona, the leader of the Valorian Knights, Sir Corwin, and the leader of the Britain monks, Amoranth, to take the task of governing the nation. Things were fine at first but once the columns began to appear the famine and plague started and they began to fight all the time. When a large shipment of food which had been bought and paid for failed to arrive in Britain, Amoranth accused Verona of treason and inhumanity, with Verona making the same accusations after a similar shipment of Serpentwyne didn't come to Moonglow. The land of Britannia then fractured into a group of three warring city-states, with Moonglow and Britain setting up blockades against each other. Lord British is worried as both Moonglow and Britain are building up armies, one commanded by Corwin's daughter and the other by his son. If it were not for Sir Corwin's pacifistic overtures to his children, they would already be in open warfare. Lord British implores the Avatar to stop the civil war, famine, and plague. He believes the mysterious columns are somehow behind them all. He further warns the Avatar to avoid Asylum, the island formerly known as Buccaneer's Den, as it is run by dangerous, treasonous, thugs.
The Avatar finds Shamino in the Abbey in Britain in a trance, which he breaks using the Bell, Book, and Candle. Shamino tells him that the rangers disappeared some years ago and he felt an unholy call luring him somewhere. To avoid that compulsion he placed himself into a trance in the hopes that if the Avatar would return he might be reawakened and the call would be gone by then. Shamino no longer feels the compulsion and joins with the Avatar.
Together, they set off for the column near the dungeon Despise. On their way, they are attacked by Wyrmguards encamped nearby. During the fight a woman jumps into the fray and spears a female Wyrmguard through the eye, and helps drive the rest of them off. The Avatar is grateful, and the woman introduces herself as Raven. She was sent to find the Avatar and bring him back to Asylum to meet with her boss Samhayne. He has some information about the problems besetting Britannia and knows the Avatar is here to help solve them. In Despise the three together retrieve one of the corrupt Runes of Virtue from the column, stopping its power.
The party then returns to Britain and then takes a ship to meet with Samhayne. Samhayne is a benevolent underworld character, who makes profit by running contraband food and Serpentwyne throughout Britannia, even running the blockades of Moonglow and Britain. He knows the war is closer than anyone thinks, but he needs proof to present to Lord British, so the Tribunal can be dissolved and Lord British can reassume the mantle of leadership. Shamino does not believe that Samhayne is completely trustworthy, and demands proof of what's going on. Samhayne tells the Avatar to travel to Valoria, what is left of the regions that held Jhelom and Serpent's Hold after the cataclysms, and then meet with Sir Corwin, who should tell them what's coming down.
The party travels to Valoria and goes to see Corwin, who meets with them with his new aide Darkblade. He explains the situation and confirms Samhayne's suspicions. The Avatar eventually convinces Corwin, who had previously been so caught up in despair, to send word to his son and daughter to dissolve their armies and meet at a negotiation table. The Avatar and his companions then return to Asylum and speak further with Samhayne, now that they know he's not blowing smoke. He tells the Avatar that they need more proof to give Lord British of the gravity of the situation, so he can have something with which to confront the warring factions. The Avatar must make contact with the Thieves Guild operatives inside Britain and Moonglow to get them to steal some incriminating evidence. Some Guild members object to an outsider making contact with them so Samhayne convinces the Avatar into entering the Guild. The Avatar is branded with the secret sign of the Guild and is sent to either Moonglow or Britain as he wishes.
During the sea voyage another cutscene is shown. Lord British dreams that the Avatar has joined the Thieves' Guild and is branded. He becomes more distraught and begins to distrust the Avatar.
The plot branches at this point, but comes together again quickly. The Avatar travels to Moonglow or Britain. There he makes contact with one of the Guild's spies and is given a disguise. He enters the Court of Truth or Abbey of Love, and while he searches for damning evidence, he overhears Amoranth/Verona and their lackey Ebontyne/Shadowbriar discussing their preparations for war. While spying on these Tribunal members the Avatar is captured and knocked unconscious.
Again, Lord British dreams of all this, seeing the Avatar thrown into prison for spying on one of the members of the Tribunal. His distrust and anger at the Avatar grow.
The Avatar then awakens in Dungeon Wrong. Ebontyne/Shadowbriar stands before the doorway and removes his magical disguise, revealing himself as Lord Blackthorn. He taunts the Avatar, telling him that he has been behind all the seeds of war, planting them in the minds of Amoranth and Verona. His only stumbling block now is Sir Corwin, who is attempting to get his children to negotiate, thanks to the Avatar's meddling, but by this time tomorrow, Corwin won't be troubling anyone anymore. Blackthorn leaves, and the Avatar and Raven (also caught trying to free the Avatar while he was unconscious), eventually escape their cell and find their way out of the dungeon (deactivating yet another column along the way). They find Shamino just outside, waiting for them. The party goes to find a ship to get to Sir Corwin as fast as they can, but by the time they arrive he has already been assassinated but his body is also gone. The only evidence is the arrow that killed the Lord of Valoria.
Following the clue of the arrow leads to a description of the assassin: the female Wyrmguard Raven stabbed in the eye earlier. In addition a medium consulted determines that the body of Corwin is in the Well of Souls on the ruined isle of Skara Brae. The medium informs the Avatar that a spell for speaking with the dead cast upon the body would reveal the truth, and that this might well stop the war. The Avatar and his companions travel to Skara Brae and eventually find Corwin's remains, killing off loads of undead and deactivating another column in the process.
When they leave the dungeon a messenger arrives informing them that the armies have taken the field near the Shrine of Justice. The party hastens to the shrine in time to meet with Amoranth, Verona, and the other commanders. Verona casts the seance spell, and the spirit of Corwin reveals that his lackey Darkblade is actually Ebontyne and Shadowbriar as well, all disguises of Blackthorn, and it is he who is goading the factions to war. Darkblade, in his tent, suddenly reverts to his shape as Lord Blackthorn and the area is attacked by Wyrmguards mounted on dragons. During the battle Blackthorn escapes, kidnapping Amoranth and Verona and daring the Avatar to come rescue them at Terfin.
After the battle Jaana arrives with word that the other companions of the Avatar await him in the sanctuary of Cove. They believe they've discovered where the plague is coming from and what the columns are doing. During the journey to Cove Lord British has another dream sequence. He sees the Avatar standing before the armies of Britannia and they seem to be swearing fealty to him. Lord British is wrathful as the Guardian whispers to him that it seems the Avatar has plans for usurping the throne and seizing rulership of Britannia. He then no longer permits the Avatar to come to the castle unless he has a member of the Tribunal with him.
Once in Cove the Avatar learns that the columns are causing the plague. As long as they are powered the plague will continue. The are also like clock springs, winding up, absorbing the life energy of Britannia. Even unpowered their energy is not released, and in time they will let go and quite possibly destroy Britannia. They also receive word that a vast army of Wyrmguard and gargoyles is planning to attack Britain and other cities in Britannia. They must perform a preemptive strike before all of the Guardian's forces can muster. Samhayne will provide ships and the army under Corwin's children have been ready, however the dragons at the Wyrmguard's command would rip them to shreds before they make landfall at Terfin. Their only hope are the Dragons of Destard.
The Avatar then travels to Trinsic and goes to see the Queen of Dragons in dungeon Destard nearby. He has to rescue her and some of her eggs from a group of Wyrmguard, after which she agrees to help (yet another column is unpowered at this point). Now, with all the forces moving into place, the Avatar sets off for the other dungeons in order to deactivate the remaining columns, except for the Abyss. He needs one of the Gargoyle lenses from Lord British to open the path. Once they are done, a ship arrives to take the Avatar's party to Terfin to face the Guardian and Lord Blackthorn.
After a lot of fighting in Terfin, finally the Avatar reaches the throne room, and finds Blackthorn there, but the Guardian has escaped. Blackthorn grovels and pleads for mercy. Shamino suggests taking him to Lord British so he can confess. Once there, Lord British hears his confession and has him executed. Lord British can feel some of his strength returning thanks to the shutdown of almost all of the columns, and Hawkwind's arrival in the castle some days prior. Hawkwind warns that the columns are primed and will release soon, destroying everything and funneling the power of that destruction into the Guardian, making him even stronger still. He says that the Guardian's plan had been to keep the Avatar busy and off balance long enough for the columns to finish absorbing enough of the energy of Britannia. Further, he says that the runes of virtue can save the populace if they can be brought to Skara Brae as soon as possible. The Runes should be placed at the cardinal points on the island, and the virtues will take care of the rest. He then indicates that Lord British and the Avatar must make a final journey to Stonegate to confront the Guardian, for it was from there that he cast forth the runes to form the columns.
Before the Avatar can go to Skara Brae he gets the lens from Lord British and travels to the Stygian Abyss. There he fights the Slasher of the Veils, deactivates the column, and frees Amoranth and Verona, who return with him to Skara Brae.
Most of the population has been brought to Skara Brae by the time the Avatar, Lord British, Verona, and Amoranth arrive. The Companions remain while the Avatar places the Runes of Virtue in position and leaves with Lord British. The arrive at Stonegate and face the Guardian in one of the lower chambers, apparently killing him, but Lord British is weakened in the battle. Hawkwind appears again and says that though the Guardian is defeated for the moment, the power unleashed by the columns will resurrect him and make him still more powerful. The life force of Britannia must be eliminated to defeat him for good. Lord British mentions the ritual of Armageddon. They get to the roof of Stonegate to cast the spell, but Lord British is too weak to do it, and decides that if Britannia must die then he will go with his world. The Avatar discovers that he too must infuse himself into the spell and that he will "pass on" with the casting. Hawkwind's voice tells him that this is but a step and that he will ascend beyond this realm to a higher plane.
The Avatar performs the Ritual, and a really cool full-motion video cutscene is shown: spell of destruction rips forth from Stonegate, moving in waves across the land. Deer flash into ashes, trees explode, cities are destroyed. Worried people stand on Skara Brae as they can see the wave of destruction heading their way. But waves of light pulse from the runes and lines of power form a dome over the island as the wave of destruction hits. Slowly the island pulls loose from the planet and rockets into the Void. The world of Britannia cracks and tears apart, and then a final explosion.
Most fans of the whole Ultima saga consider this to be a far better story and a more satisfying end than the really strange story that is told by the official Ultima IX. What actually happened within Origin Systems that caused such a hugely radical change in the plot is not very clear, but rumors circulating say that this partly has to do with the mid-development decision to shift from a semi-3D world to a fully 3D view. Also, Electronic Arts it seemed wanted to get the Ultima series over and done with once and for all: they were only keeping Origin Systems alive because of Ultima Online. In the ensuing fiasco, Richard Garriott eventually left the company he founded, and went on his own way in mid 2000.
Here's a link on Google Groups to the original Usenet posting: http://groups.google.com/groups?as_umsgid=D7Q34.93431%247I4.2358945%40news5.giganews.com&lr=&hl=en